TACLOBAN, Philippines – The November 8 typhoon that devastated the Philippines has revived a long-standing debate concerning food aid in the United States. Supported by the Obama Administration as well as aid workers, reform would primarily address the legal requirement of sending U.S. goods to devastated areas when local options would more easily suffice. In contrast, proponents of keeping current food aid regulations, primarily farmers and maritime workers, argue reform would result in the loss of American jobs and a diminished sea lift capacity.
Of the World Food Programme’s requested $88 million in donations for Philippines relief, the United States is set to make up around 25% to 35% of that total. However, current food aid regulations stipulate that only 20% of that donation may be spent locally. The remaining 80% must be shipped from the United States or other American reserves.
Certain countries are all but impossible to ship U.S. food to: Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sahelian region of Africa. For that reason, the USAID must divide the 20% permitted as cash vouchers or local purchases amongst them. In some situations, that means drastically scaling back aid in places that desperately need it.
Limiting cash vouchers and local food purchases may also negatively impact local markets. By bringing in large bundles of American grown food, rebuilding local agriculture may take longer and, according to humanitarian aid groups, could possibly deter farmers from restarting their fields.
According to USAID, rice sent from the U.S. to the Philippines takes 12 weeks to reach typhoon victims. As National Public Radio and other organizations have pointed out, the Philippines would be the perfect place to send cash vouchers since it is surrounded by countries with high rice yields. From Thailand, a shipment of rice would take approximately eight weeks, while local purchases would be available immediately.
In 2007, a Government Accountability Organization conducted study found 65% of funds allocated to America’s largest food aid program were spent on shipping and business costs. The study additionally notes the trend in increased food need throughout the world but, with the current constraints of food aid, the U.S. lacks the capability to deliver the food and meet shipping costs.
“Despite growing demand for food aid, rising business and transportation costs have contributed to a 52% decline in average tonnage delivered over the last 5 years,” states the report. “These costs represent 65% of total emergency food aid, highlighting the need to maximize its efficiency and effectiveness.”
The United States is the largest global food aid donor and the only world power that insists so strenuously on homegrown food and labor. However, concerns from the shipping industry and maritime unions blocked food aid reform for the time being.
In a statement issued by the American Maritime Congress, members claim that “over 33,000 Americans’ jobs depend upon the transportation of food aid alone.” Furthermore, they postulate that any reduction in maritime shipments would decrease the U.S.’s military readiness and thereby severely limit sealift capacity.
With these arguments, along with a quarter of a million dollars in donations to congress members, the shipping industry secured the continuation of current food aid regulations.
Despite these set-backs, members of the humanitarian community remain positive that reform is still possible.
“As you see from the initial response to the typhoon, we need both—American food and locally grown food,” said Rajiv. “It works in tandem. All we’re asking for is a little bit more flexibility to meet the humanitarian needs of a much more complex and changing world.”
– Emily Bajet